Taking Democracy Seriously


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In a recent article on this site, Miriam Cotton took me to task for ‘intellectually-rationalised paralysis’ in light of the current crisis. Her article -written with admirable openness and honesty- is an acid criticism of the failure of the Irish Left to put together a coherent response to the present crisis.

I disagree with many aspects of her analysis. I don’t believe what she describes as ‘rapacious, international financial corporatism’ is ‘worse than capitalism’: it is capitalism.  I certainly wouldn’t treat my own writings as indicative or representative of tendencies on the Irish Left -for good or bad. Indeed, if what I write ends up getting treated in that way, it highlights one of the serious problems of the Irish Left: in public, it is either very small, or very quiet, or both.

Miriam’s analysis proceeds from the view that there ought to be a development similar to what has happened in Greece, as described by Helena Sheehan’s recent piece on Greece: a proliferation of strikes at general and local level, resulting in an increasing convergence of the politics of the street with the politics of the ballot box.

By contrast with Greece, Miriam says Ireland’s ‘austerity and financier-facilitating ‘trade unions’’ have ‘have stood aside in pale and limp demur’, as the austerity regime of bailouts, cutbacks and the destruction of social rights extends itself. No arguments from me here.

Given this context, she believes that my claim, made at the end of my ICTU piece in relation to ‘the climate of grim sacrificial inevitability’ (my words) that ‘we need imaginative ways of communicating the conflict, of capturing people’s commitment to a struggle for democratic rights’ is ‘lobbing cold water over any idea’ of calling for strikes.

She suggests that in effect I am saying ‘sit down again everybody.  As you were.  We need to do lots more talking and thinking before we act.’

Let me address this as clearly as I can. I have no problem with people calling for strikes, or calling trade union leaders traitors. My point -which I’m afraid Miriam elides- is that ICTU does not take democracy seriously. ‘And that -amid a climate of grim sacrificial inevitability- is a problem that no amount of simply shouting ‘traitor!’ or ‘general strike!’ will solve.’ That is the crux of my argument.

The idea of democracy does not figure in unions’ public discourse at all. I wrote a number of months back, in The Great Theft Movement – Ireland as Kleptocracy, that ‘conventional wisdom, relentlessly reproduced via dominant media institutions, holds that ‘democracy’ -which is to say, bourgeois representative democracy- is the only form of government worth having; hence the decisions taken by its representatives, regardless of how destructive they are of public welfare, regardless of how much wealth they transfer into private hands, regardless of how the reality of their decisions is obscured from public view, are legitimate and unimpeachable.’

Not only do Irish trade unions do nothing to challenge this conventional wisdom; they reinforce it at every turn. They endorse the legitimacy of the current government -obedient to the Troika and to the rule of finance capital- with their support for the Labour Party. For example, SIPTU President Jack O’Connor made a speech last week commemorating revolutionary socialist and syndicalist Jim Larkin. In it, he counselled support for a right-wing government in its dealings with the Troika. He made no mention of democracy, or any of its habitual sub-categories (political, economic, social…).

What he did instead was draw equivalence between the ‘extreme left’ and the ‘extreme right’ and cast himself and revolutionary socialist Jim Larkin as moderates of the present conjuncture. By so doing, he was casting people who call for strikes and resistance -in defence of democratic rights- as equivalent to fascist forces such as Golden Dawn, forces who talk about clearing up Greece of the ‘stench’ of migrants.

To repeat: no mention of democracy. No mention of how public services are an essential element of democracy and indeed the democratic gains won by the labour movement. Instead, an endorsement, in fluent technocratese, of ‘an optimally efficient public service’ reconciled with ‘the legitimate entitlements and interests of those who are employed in the provision of it’.

No mention of democracy. Instead, talk about how the present economic crisis ‘threatens our very existence as a sovereign state’. ‘Our’ existence. As a state. Tutto nello Stato..

The question, then, is how the combination of street politics and the politics of the ballot box can converge, as we have seen in Greece, and, to a degree, in the Spanish state, with regional elections in Galicia and Catalonia, without some kind of democratic rupture, without some kind of popular recognition that the process of inflicting massive cuts in wages and public services and stripping away social rights and transferring wealth from the poor to the rich known as ‘austerity’ has no democratic legitimacy.

This leads me to my main point of disagreement with Miriam. Where she sees my claim that we should seek ‘imaginative ways of communicating the conflict’ as a call for inaction (‘’sit down again everybody.  As you were.  We need to do lots more talking and thinking before we act.’) I see talking and thinking as an essential pre-requisite for that ‘convergence of the politics of the street with the politics of the ballot box’.

Last night I saw an old comic with an image of Chuck Norris on the back page, an advertisement for his film MegaForce. Above the image of him holding a gun aloft was the motto ‘Deeds not words’. But words are deeds, and talking and thinking are actions; essential components of democratic movement. And as long as the problems of the current capitalist crisis are neither seen nor addressed as problems of democracy -the rule of the people- we are lost, in Ireland as elsewhere.

Portuguese writer José Saramago wrote back in 2002 that ‘owing to some sort of verbal and mental automatism that keeps us from seeing the raw, naked facts, we continue to speak of democracy as if it were something alive and dynamic, when little more remains to us of it than a set of ritualized forms, the harmless passes and gesturing of a kind of lay mass. What we fail to see – as if it were not right before our eyes – is that our governments, which (for better or worse) we elect and therefore are primarily responsible for, are increasingly becoming mere “political commissars” of economic power, with the key mission of producing laws to suit that power so that, sugarcoated with self-serving official and individual publicity, they can subsequently be introduced into the social market without stirring up too many protests, other than by certain well-known and eternally discontented minorities…’

Doesn’t this describe precisely what is going on in Ireland now?

The defence of democracy means mass collective action against the political commissars of economic power. But that cannot exclude talking and thinking. Indeed, what frightens political commissars is the prospect of mass democratic participation above and beyond the deadening routine of periodic voting and enduring electoral speechifying. In a recent interview, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras used the concept of the ‘two squares’ to outline how the rapid growth of the Greek radical left -in terms of electoral power- came about in recent years.

Tsipras said that “the movement began on two squares in Athens. Let’s give them some kind of name: the one below and the one above. The square below was always more politicised, with themed assemblies, with different talks. Many young people took part. They practised direct democracy. But the important thing is that these demonstrations were completely peaceful with great mass participation, with very many people taking part….The square above was less participative. That is why the system was more frightened by the one below. It was not the same as wrecking a bank or wrecking a cash machine. Wrecking strengthened the system. By contrast, the peaceful stance did sound an alarm for them. We have to bear in mind that these spontaneous and massive reactions led to the fall of two governments. But by contrast, going back to the comparison of the two squares, burnt out banks and burnt out small properties did not produce political results. It is very simple: where you had fires, big business could find some small business owner to cry.”

Practically no-one believes that what we have seen in Greece could occur in Ireland. That is the current assessment of the financial markets. Moreover, Ireland stands at a conceptual remove from the countries of the South of Europe, both in the minds of financiers, and in the minds of those who resist. On top of this, the trade union leadership is fully aligned with the government’s illusory agenda of recovering national sovereignty, an agenda supported by Ireland’s right wing media and its owning class, which entails killing hospital patients and driving up suicide rates, so that the sovereign representative body might be restored to its former power.

But as Pablo Bustinduy pointed out in an article I translated yesterday, there is no longer an inside and an outside when it comes to the ransacking of Europe. It will never be enough for a small retinue of Irish Leftists to lock themselves in a room and come up with an electoral programme they think will get people’s attention and, simultaneously, hope for the best when it comes to campaigning to mobilise people against specific issues, and do so all within the same framework of national sovereign representation that IBEC and Fine Gael, as well as the trade union movement, defend.

In Ireland, there is no such thing as discussing politics in a nice square in warm weather. So, other ways have to be found. There are always possibilities. But if there is no popular potency in defence of democracy, then, Bernadette McAliskey’s words from a few days ago will prove true: “we have got to get a political programme together here and get the struggle for civil rights, social rights, political rights and economic rights together or we are in, comrades and colleagues, for one hell of a hiding.”


2 Responses

  1. Jonathan

    February 5, 2013 9:33 am

    “I don’t believe what she describes as ‘rapacious, international financial corporatism’ is ‘worse than capitalism’: it is capitalism.”
    I think what has confused some people is the idea that before now we lived in a true capitalist society. We didn’t: we lived in a society in which people were protected from the excesses of true capitalism, protections which are now being stripped away. The myth that capitalism is some kind of stateless free-market Friedmanite fantasy is precisely that, a fantasy to confuse people about the true nature of capitalism. The wealthy and powerful don’t want to get rid of the State: they want to use its power to protect them and further their own ends, as happened in 2008 and is still happening today.